A Lesson in Brevity from Rita Moreno

At 90 years, Rita Moreno is enjoying a renascence of her acting career in Steven Spielberg’s reimagined version of “West Side Story.” She appeared in the original version of the film 65 years ago and won an Oscar for her performance in the role of Anita. In a ceremony characterized by lengthy acceptance orations, Moreno refreshingly broke the mold by limiting her speech to 11 words: “I can’t believe it! Good Lord! I leave you with that!”

Contrast Moreno’s priceless nugget to those acceptance speeches that prompt the Academy orchestra to start playing what has come to be known as the “wrap-up” music, which not only prompts the person to end their palaver but does so by drowning out what they are saying. And in a perfect modern day development, Fast Company reports that “there’s an app for that.” You’re Cutoff enables anyone to play “wrap-up” music from a mobile device if a business meeting or speech runs too long.

Sadly, brevity is lacking in other arenas beyond Hollywood and business, particularly in sports:

  • At this year’s ESPY Awards, former broadcaster Dick Vitale won the Jim Valvano Perseverance Award and then proceeded to give the longest acceptance speech in the event’s 29-year history; so long, the ABC telecast ran 15 minutes over its scheduled time.
  • At this year’s NFL Draft, former NFL football star Ed Marinaro had the simple task of announcing the 42nd pick, but his speech rambled on so long the NFL sent a producer onstage to point directly at the pick card as a signal to Marinaro to wrap it up.

Turning back to our role model of brevity, Rita Moreno was evidently following similar advice I learned from the professor of my public speaking class in college. He described a speech he had delivered to the Goodyear Company in Ohio. He began by saying, “I promise to make my speech follow the same principles you observe here in your manufacturing facility, ‘The longer the spoke, the bigger the tire.’”

The best business example of the value of brevity comes from that most high stakes of all presentations—the IPO pitch. When a company offers shares of its stock to the public, the CEO and the CFO go on an arduous two-week roadshow. Although these days the roadshow is mostly virtual, there was a time when they had to deliver 70 or 80 iterations of the same pitch. Inevitably, as the roadshow proceeded, each iteration of the presentation got longer and longer in a phenomenon known as “presentation creep.” Targeted at 20–25 minutes, by the end of the roadshow, some presentations have been known to run as long as 40 minutes. Except for one company.

Let’s call them XYZ, a company I had the privilege of coaching. During XYZ’s roadshow, I received an excited call from an investment banker in New York who had just attended the luncheon presentation. He said, “This was the best roadshow you’ve ever coached!” I asked him why and he said “Because they did it in 15 minutes, and the investors were delighted to get back to their offices.” 

It’s unlikely that you will face the same challenges and stakes in your presentations as IPO roadshow executives, but you can learn from Rita Moreno and my speech professor. Your audience doesn’t need to hear every encyclopedic detail of your business proposal. They have neither the time nor the patience—especially in this Twitter-driven world—to listen to long presentations.

Keep brevity in mind while you are developing your presentations, and when you are finished and ready to present, take one more look at it and find more material you can omit. Follow Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous advice Less Is More, and its corollary: “When in doubt, leave it out.”

This blog is an excerpt from my book Presentations In Action published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.